We have heard speakers this morning telling us about the Central Asian links with Parsi culture, the Chinese influence on Parsi textiles and the weaving traditions of the Parsis. As we move on, I would now like to focus on the extensive intercultural traditions of the Parsis, while examining how the core beliefs of the Zoroastrian religion, have yet been preserved in terms of the nature symbols in Parsi crafts.
As you may be aware, the Parsis are the followers of the Bronze Age Prophet Zarathushtra of Iran.
He is believed to have preached his message of the one true God, Ahura Mazda around 1600 BC. Zoroaster’s followers included Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC) and Darius of the Achaemenian dynasty. This Iranian dynasty created the largest Empire of the ancient world, which stretched from Europe to China and provided humanity with the first Bill of Human Rights. Known as the Cyrus Cylinder, its replica is kept in the UN Building to emphasise the relevance of its message to mankind even today.
In 331 BC Alexander of Macedon defeated Darius III in battle. Alexander the Great in the Western world is Alexander the Accursed to the Persians. He caused irreparable damage by burning the palace at Persepolis; the entire library, with its collection of scriptures written in letters of gold, perished in the flames. So the religion and culture remained alive in a few scattered texts but mainly through the oral tradition and in memory for centuries.
The battle of Nihavand against the Arabs in 642 AD ended the Persian Empire. In 936 AD a group of religious refugees determined to preserve their faith, sought shelter from Jadi Rana of Sanjan on the Gujarat coast. Preserved in oral legend, song and dance is the story of the sugar in the milk. Jadi Rana signified with a bowl full of milk that his country was full to the brim. The Priestly leader of the refugees in turn carefully stirred a spoon of sugar into the bowl, signifying that like the sugar the refugees would mingle into and sweeten the life of their adopted land. Since, they came from Pars in Southern Iran, these people became known as the Parsis.
These refugees carried no texts or tablets but they carried with them an interesting part of the Memory of the World. Iran stands at a meeting point between East and West. It had become an essential stop on the Old Silk Route. Indian thought and material culture now complemented Iranian and Chinese cross-cultural influences. Europe and the Far East would later also influence the Parsis. This led to the creation of a hybrid Parsi culture, which adapted and absorbed much of the best from across the world.
For UNESCO Culture Specialists, what is interesting is how, despite these adaptations and assimilations, the core culture of the Parsis remained unchanged from the Bronze Age till modern times. This paper examines some aspects which remained alive even when the geographical location changed from the Iranian and Central Asian regions to Western India; the language changed from Persian and Dari to Parsi Gujarati and the clothing and food adapted to new circumstances. These areas of transmission concern core ecological beliefs, which interlink with the crafts of the community.
Respect for Creation is a cardinal tenet of the Faith.
On the Central Asian steppes, the pastoral peoples worshipped water as the source of nourishment and fire for its warmth and protection. Zoroaster developed these into a system of theology with a message of care and conservation of natural resources, which has great relevance to our post-industrial world. To serve nature is to serve God and reverence for nature was interwoven into daily life.
The Parsis celebrate the birthday of Ava, Water, and Adar, Fire with thanksgiving and feasts. Each Zoroastrian is a soldier of Truth who must protect Spenta or the Good Creation against the Ahrimanic forces of Druj or Naso, literally degradation and pollution. Each Zoroastrian child is initiated at the Navjote into the faith. He then wears the sacred shirt or Sudreh and the Kusti or sacred girdle, which he ties at the word shythonenam or action.
Zarathushtra’s entire teaching and ethics can be compressed into 3 commandments ‘Humata, Hukata, Huvarashta’, Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds so idleness and sloth is evil, to make this earth productive is a spiritual duty.
The crafts of the Parsis were also inherited through the oral tradition. The craft of Parsi embroidery is perhaps the best-known of Parsi material culture. However, an even older craft was the ancient weaving tradition, believed to come have down from the time of the Prophet himself. The weaving of the Kusti on the looms has been explained for its sacred symbolism. Its antiquity can be seen in this frieze from Susa.
The sense of the sacred was inherited in an osmotic process through Oral Traditions which celebrated seasonal and life cycle rituals. The spring festival of Navroze brings together flower and fish, fire and plants on a table decorated with beautiful silver and glass objects.
Zoroastrianism regards both the menok and getik, physical and spiritual worlds as important and to be enjoyed. It is this sense joy in the creation that is expressed in crafts. From the simplest chalk decorations to the complexity of embroidery or gold work certain symbols from nature recur constantly.
The Rooster, sacred to Sarosh Angel of prayer for he drives away darkness and welcomes the light of dawn, is not to be eaten and is a symbol of blessing found in various aspects of Parsi life. Roosters were specially found on children’s jhablas because before the Navjote a child needed special protection.
Before a person eats a meal, the first serving is to be kept aside cleanly for the community dogs outside your home. This is the Kutra no buk or Morsel for the Dog. It is followed even today in the villages of Iran and Gujarat, to thank man’s friend and protector from the pastoral age. The Prophet’s love of dogs is told of in oral legends and has been recorded in later texts.
Ancient symbols such as the sign of the sun, common in many embroidery traditions are incorporated with popular stories of animal helpers. So we get the karolia or spider design, another protective symbol, commemorating the little spider who wove a web over the Zoroastrians hidden in a well, thereby protecting them from enemy soldiers.
Zoroastrian men were also skilled weavers. Xenophon describes Cyrus the Great coming into battle “wearing a purple tunic shot with white…trousers of scarlet dye about his legs", this colour combination remains one of the most popular even today among the Parsis. Tablets from Susa at the time of Emperor Darius mention not only flourishing weaving industries but also clothes of coloured embroidery.
On the festival of Navroze the Great King was gifted objects of textiles, as can be seen on this frieze from Persepolis.
History records how in 53 BC, Marcus Crassus, Governor of the Roman Province of Syria fled from the Persians when the Parthians unfurled huge silk flags – the first Roman contact with silk confused them on the battle field. (Jonathan Tucker The Silk Road Pg 82).
The Parthian band of pearl discs, trellis grid patterns and scenes of hunting brought certain designs into common use. Since at this period Persians were middle men selling Chinese silk to the west, they controlled the East-West trade route. At this time, an amalgamation of cultures appears in the designs of various art and craft forms. In the slide shown here, a Mithraic figure appears in the roundel of a pearl disc on a sculpture. In textile pieces, similar roundels and trellis are seen
So the Zoroastrian love of nature and transmission of its motifs can be seen in all their embroidery, first in simple form with flower, fish and birds. During the Tang and Song dynasties (618-907 AD and 960-1279 AD) as the Zoroastrian Empire crumbled and refuges moved to live in Eastern China, intercultural exchange brought together the skill of Chinese embroidery schools and their symbolism with Persian naturalistic scenes, to create a beautiful cultural amalgam. With the settlement in India, other influences were added, a trellis pattern from nature, peacocks, endless knots from the Buddhist traditions mingle with the auspicious kanku red (vermillion) on this surti gara, a perfect example of fusion and influence.
Zoroastrian motifs are also clearly seen in later Sogdian textiles for as J. Allgrove McDowell says, “the textiles of conquered Persia preserved its original national identity and passed it on to future generations".
In the Zoroastrian Pahlavi text, The Bundahishn, every day is dedicated to an angel, who is symbolized by a flower. Priests still remember how prayer ceremonies had the flowers of the roj or day placed in the sacrificial offerings. The thirty Yazatas or archangels and angels whose names are applied to the thirty days of the month can be seen across generations of embroidery traditions.
The white Jasmine (for Vohu Manah- the good mind)
The lily (for Khordad- health)
The marigold (for Atar-Angel of fire)
The water lily (for Ava-Goddess of water)
The red chrysanthemum (for Saroasha- Agel of Prayer)
The Hundred Petalled Rose (for Din- Angel of Religion)
So while the Parsi Zoroastrians adopted motifs of protection from Chinese embroidery such as the Divine fungus and added it into their repertoire, they kept Zoroastrian symbols of protection, the legendary Iranian Simurgh which roosts on the Tree of Seeds, The Tree of Life in the Avesta and has healing powers and Ariz or fish – emblem of fertility. The colour red came from the Indian palette while the Chinese multicoloured embroidery was replaced by creams and whites to match the long sudreh which every woman wore.
Indian and Chinese motifs sometimes coexist and it is only in the Parsi gara that we have the Indian Ambi and the Chinese Paisley coming together.
Mr. Bejan Bodhanvala of Baroda is one of many who recall Chinese pheriyas sitting on his grandmother’s veranda resting after lunch. This was the time when they took out their embroidery rings and special needles and soon were teaching his great aunts and other female relatives their special Chinese skill sets. But along with Chinese embroidery, Parsis women adapted the aari and the mochi stitch into their embroidered textiles.
Since Parsi women were the first to socially interact with their European counterparts. European designs like scallops, bows and baskets were next incorporated, leading to a unique amalgam of four distinct civilizational traditions. It is to be noted that while embroidery was a skill which every lady had to learn, it was also an occupation for middle class women at a time when other jobs were unavailable. Women supported themselves through both embroidery and sudreh making right up till the 20th century.
The weaving of tanchoi, is another Craft brought by Parsis from China. The name originates according to one tradition, in the three (tan) Parsi men (choi) or Joshi brothers who lived in China. These three brothers learnt the art of Jacquard weaving, which they brought home to Surat. Later, this craft shifted its base to Benares, where unfortunately its origins have been forgotten. It is to be noted that the same patterns, Gul e bulbul, intercrossing birds from the old traditions continue to be seen in these first pieces of tanchoi in India.
But emblems celebrating nature were not just meant for textiles. When women, who constitute all the weavers of the Kusti, could not weave a sacred material during their periods of ritual “uncleanliness", they used the loom to fashion a beautiful decorative toran. Tiny glass beads are painstakingly designed in traditional patterns – the rooster for protection, the fish for plenty, flowers of blessing, Swastik and fire symbols. A few young girls still learn this craft from their grandmothers and weave torans. Unfortunately, customers in urban centres where they are sold do not always realize the skill involved and the cost of the beads, of which the finest quality come from Eastern Europe.
Weaving and embroidery techniques are difficult, and simpler crafts were used to enhance daily life. The Parsi craft of chalk decoration is one practiced even today. Outside most Parsi homes there are little designs printed on the ground. Now made out of chalk powder, they originated in Iran where lime was used outside homes to keep away insects. In India, this mingled with the rangoli decorations of Gujarat, developing a decorative design vocabulary which distinguishes Parsi homes. Often the same patterns are repeated, roosters, fish, horse shoes for luck and the ses for blessings on an auspicious occasion.
Another craft descended from an ancient past is working in silver. Silver symbolizes purity in the Zoroastrian tradition it is a part of the Zoroastrian life cycle from birth to death, being used at birth, through childhood, the Navjote, wedding and for the last rites. It is also used for all ceremonial purposes, both in the Fire Temple and at home.
Every woman carries a silver ses, gifted by her father to her married home. This round silver plate, filled with ritual objects, all from nature symbolizes family strength and unity. The ses therefore invokes upon the household the blessings of all aspects of creation as can be seen in the silver fish, betel leaf, coconut and other little objects in it. Later, as pure silver became expensive, a plated alloy known as German silver became a popular substitute.
After death, silver muktad vases permanently commemorate the soul. It is interesting to note that silver bowls even today follow the same patterns found at archaeological sites. The embossed decoration, floral motifs and central rosettes are common features across two millennia. The muktad is the annual period of remembering the dead. During this period they are remembered with fresh flowers placed in these special vases. Each muktad vase bears the name of an individual and the dates of birth and death engraved on it. Consecrated during prayers, it will stand testimony for that soul in perpetuity.
Gifts of jewelry form an important part in the life rituals, especially for women. The use of the kerba or amber is also traditional. A baby is given small kerba bangles for protection, prayer beads were often made of amber and amber jewelry is popular. Parsis believe that the kerba has healing properties. A jaundice patient is made to wear a kerba, as it is believed to draw out toxins and cleanse the entire system.
Gold and pearls in flower patterns were traditionally used in Zoroastrian jewelry, a tradition kept alive by the famed Parsi jewel houses of Bombay. Cameos and Chinese pendants were equally popular, while the trellis and flower designs, the rope chains or cheda, fish pendants and little horse shoes seen in Parsi jewelry reflect its intercultural links.
Several other crafts of the Parsis lend themselves to fusions of culture. The wood carving of the Zoroastrians is again a multicultural tradition drawing together ancient Iranian design, Indian sandalwood carving, Chinese motifs and the Portuguese love for elaborately carved details in furniture. The Pettigara Petis or caskets intricately carved with animals, especially the lion, royal foliage and scenes from the myths of the Shahnameh, are still prized possessions. The Pettigara family started this carving in Surat. This deep carving in sandalwood used border frames of ivory or bone to create velvet lined jewel caskets and boxes in which to store precious documents and rare prayer books. The boxes are so skillfully made that they remain airtight even 200 years after their creation. The scent of sandalwood wafts out of them when are opened.
Painting on glass developed in Europe in the Middle Ages. It came to the Parsis through the Chinese and is seen particularly in the depiction of epic heroes. Its centres in India from the end of the 18th century till the end of the 19th century were Satara and Poona in Maharashtra. Later in the 19th century, stained glass portraits created a tradition which is still being followed by Parsi craftspersons.
The cuisine of a people reflects its geographical and historical experience. The Zoroastrians amalgamated their food habits, with the offerings and influences of the coastal region of their new home and created a distinctive cuisine. So, the herbs of the Iranian plateau mingled with the spices of India creating Parsi Cuisine.
The Parsis brought from Persia their fondness for a touch of sweetness even in their savory and spiced preparations, a preference they discovered they even shared with their Gujarati neighbors. Khata –Mitha, meaning sweet and sour is a term by which Parsis are identified. European cuisine interacted to create a special anglo Parsi type of food, which remains popular even today.
There are many other crafts, water harvesting, medical healing, all dealing with making life in this world fruitful, bountiful, Spenta. Some say that the Three Wise Men who came bearing gifts for the infant Jesus to welcome his birth, were in fact Zoroastrian priests. They came to celebrate a new birth bearing gifts from nature. It is the beauty of nature and thanksgiving for its bounties that continue in these craft traditions of the Parsi Zoroastrians even today.
Talk presented at Seminar on Living Parsi Traditions: Origins, Fusions, Influences. Organized by the Parzor Foundation, Craft Revival Trust and India International Center in New Delhi on 13th March 2011
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